It was rather fitting that Forest Green put in their best performance of the season for the game in which Rovers fans returned to the innocent New Lawn for the first time since September 19.
Rovers were outstanding in their 2-0 win over Cambridge. This season has been more about results than performances for Forest Green, with seven of their eight victories prior to this win coming by a one goal margin, and some fans have been slightly concerned about the nature of some of the performances in recent weeks.
Forest Green have shown professionalism in all of their victories this season, although at times they have lacked quality in the final third and entertainment, but this was a display that married up everything together.
Mark Cooper said: “That’s as well as we’ve played all season. I think that was probably our best performance.”
What will be most pleasing to Cooper is that they won comfortably without key personnel. Jake Young, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Carl Winchester and Liam Kitching were all absent for the match.
The game could have been a completely different game if Paul Mullin’s 13th minute chip over Luke McGee which hit the crossbar had been just a few inches lower, but other than that, the league’s third highest scorers created very little.
Rovers dominated possession in the first-half and were passing with purpose. They had lots of joy in wide areas, with Odin Bailey & Aaron Collins testing goalkeeper Callum Burton, but they couldn’t turn their domination into a goal.
However, Forest Green have won more points in the second-half of games than any other team in League Two, and they took the lead after 58 minutes.
Bailey threaded a lovely ball in behind the Cambridge backline for Collins to latch onto, and the Welshman rounded Burton before finishing with his left foot from a tight angle.
Collins has had more shots than any other player in the division, but that was only his third goal of the season.
When asked if Collins needed the goal, Cooper said: “I don’t know if he did, but I did.
“The analysts tell me that his expected goal and productivity is through the roof and it’s sky high in terms of league comparisons, but at some point, you have to convert. It was starting to get to him down a little bit but hopefully that’ll calm him down.”
Rovers had a chance to double their lead seven minutes later when Ebou Adams was taken down by Harry Darling in the box and the referee pointed to the spot.
They say that there’s about a 75 per cent chance of scoring a penalty, but that’s not been the case for Rovers recently. In the penalty shootout at Oxford in midweek, they missed two of their three penalties and they’d only scored four of their last nine from the spot in League Two.
Therefore, Rovers fans must have been wondering who would take the spot-kick, but only one man was ever going to have it.
Jamille Matt ran over to the ball as soon as the referee blew his whistle for the foul, slotting coolly past Burton to double Rovers’ lead and to potentially cement his place as their first-choice penalty taker.
Forest Green were so much more exciting to watch in forward areas on Saturday, but the defence must be given credit for keeping their seventh clean sheet of the season. Chris Stokes was a colossus at the back, Dom Bernard didn’t put a foot wrong in his first start for nearly two months, and Udoka Godwin-Malife continues to improve with every game.
Ultimately, it was a pleasing afternoon’s work from Cooper’s side in which their energy on the pitch was more than matched by the enthusiasm of the 799 Rovers fans in attendance.
In previous seasons under Cooper, this is the time of year when Forest Green have suffered a little bit of a blip. Prior to this year, Cooper had only won four out of 15 games in charge of Rovers during the month of December, but his side are showing no signs of a similar festive struggle this time around.
This December always looked like a tough month for Rovers, but so far, they’ve safely navigated a potentially treacherous set of fixtures with seven points from a possible nine.
The challenges keep on coming, with a trip to Port Vale on Tuesday night (who have already beaten Cheltenham and Exeter this season), followed by a visit from inform Carlisle, the next set of obstacles for Rovers to overcome.
Forest Green Rovers (3-4-1-2): McGee; Godwin-Malife, Stokes, Bernard; Richardson, Adams, Sweeney, Cadden; Bailey (Wagstaff 78); Collins (Whitehouse 90), Matt (Stevens 78). Subs not used: Thomas, Wilson, Bunker, March.
Cambridge United (4-4-1-1): Burton; Knoyle, Darling, Cundy, Dunk; Hannant (Iredale 83), Taylor (May 72), Digby, Davies (Knibbs 72); Hoolahan (El Mizouni 83); Mullin. Subs not used: Mitov, Neal, Worman.
Referee: James Oldham.
Star man: Aaron Collins.